CAIRO, Egypt — The self-styled enforcers of religious law issued frequent reprimands to Rasha el Kholy for not wearing a head scarf.
Sometimes her co-workers spoke to her as "concerned friends," and one colleague at the Cairo clothing factory where she worked gave her a CD of a sermon that emphasized the virtues of wearing the veil.
When that failed, the de facto morality squad lectured her on how to stand during prayers, on the need to pray more than the required five times a day and how she should limit her contact with Christian co-workers, Kholy said.
"It bothered me a lot because we were not friends," said Kholy, 36. "You're not doing it for my concern, you're really doing it just because you want to give me these pearls of wisdom that make you in some way a better Muslim than I am."
Self-appointed enforcers of Islamic law are becoming more common in Egypt, a Sunni Muslim nation with a population well above 70 million. Unlike the state-sanctioned morality police of conservative theocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, Egypt's enforcers are ordinary people who take it upon themselves to offer religious "advice," often to strangers.
Unveiled women are the primary targets, but the enforcers also chastise Muslim men for dating, not observing prayer times or allowing their wives or sisters to wear revealing clothes.
Television preachers, Saudi religious literature and religious instruction in mosques all are encouraging practicing Muslims to offer such advice to others, even if unsolicited.
"People I barely knew started walking up to me, saying, 'You have beautiful hair and you're such a decent girl. Complete the perfect picture and get veiled,' " said Salma Nadim, 24, a telecommunications analyst in Cairo.
Egyptian officials have expressed alarm at the conservative Islamist reformation that's spreading across the Middle East and posing a challenge to the secular, authoritarian government of President Hosni Mubarak, one of the United States' closest Arab allies.
While Egyptian security forces regularly round up dozens of Islamist activists from organized movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, they're all but powerless to stop the street preaching that's now an everyday occurrence on the subway, at the airport, in the workplace and at sidewalk cafes.
Government-backed clerics fear that their relatively moderate brand of Islam is being replaced by a more militant version fueled by widespread political discontent at home and fury over what's seen as Western meddling in the Muslim world. To add insult to injury, sheiks who've devoted their lives to studying Islam's intricacies are finding themselves upstaged by religious vigilantes with no formal training.
"Preaching has its professionals who know religion and understand how to do their job," said Sheik Omar el Deeb, a senior cleric at Al Azhar, a venerable Cairo religious institute that's struggling to remain a touchstone for the Islamic world. "But for someone to appoint himself as a preacher, on public transportation or on the streets, and then order people to follow religion, could make people shun religion."
Several other Muslim countries are locked in internal struggles over the role of morality squads in public life. The difference is that enforcers in the other countries have full state support.
This year, Shiite Muslim Iran launched one of the widest crackdowns in nearly two decades, allowing paramilitaries and police to harass or detain hundreds of women for wearing snug clothing or not wearing the proper head scarves. Men were accosted if they sported long hair, sleeveless shirts or tattoos.
In the Palestinian territories, members of the militant Sunni group Hamas, which won parliamentary elections last January, banned certain musical instruments they deemed counter to Islam, while the rival Fatah party's newly appointed morality police arrested dozens of people for smoking or drinking during the Ramadan holy month of fasting.
Then there's Saudi Arabia, where seemingly everyone has a story of an unpleasant encounter with the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, also known as the Muttawa. The commission's members troll the kingdom's ubiquitous Starbucks cafes in search of unmarried couples on dates or for women who aren't clad in the mandatory black robe called an abaya.
In September, two Saudi women made headlines for pepper-spraying and beating up a morality officer in an attack they filmed with their cell phones. The women were hailed as heroes on several Saudi blogs and listservs.
Not all Egyptians oppose their country's emerging volunteer morality police. Many welcome their work as legitimate outreach, or da'awa, a cornerstone of Islam. Yet even supporters concede that the message can get lost in an overzealous delivery.
"A big part of my reaction depends on the attitude in which the message is delivered," said Ahmed Zahran, 22, a university student. "If they're trying to deliver a message in a good manner, without shaming you, then it doesn't make you turn them away."
Critics, on the other hand, regard the vigilantes' efforts as intrusive, offensive and hypocritical.
Mohamed Abdel Wahab, 21, a senior at an Egyptian fine arts university, said he was standing with a female friend one recent day when a stranger approached them and called their behavior "impious." The stranger invited Abdel Wahab to join him in prayer. Not wanting to cause a scene, the student politely answered that he'd think about it. Abdel Wahab never went; he considers the enforcers' focus on beards and veils to be superficial.
"You would never see one of them picking up garbage from the streets and throwing it in a garbage can, for instance," he said.
Kholy, who was the target of constant harassment at the clothing factory, left her job this year for unrelated reasons. But her bitterness lingers, and it's made her more defiant in her belief that no one has the right to question her relationship with God.
"At first, I thought they were really concerned about me, but then I realized that their advice didn't go deeper into spiritual issues or even toward building a stronger relationship between us. It was only about, 'Get veiled, get veiled, get veiled!' " she said.
In her view, the religious vigilantes are competing to show their piety. "Nowadays, everyone is holding a notebook, counting their merits and turning it into a race. If I convince you to get veiled, I'll get two pages of stars and smileys."
(Naggar is a special correspondent for McClatchy.)